Stars, Desert, and Getting High (In Altitude)

Once we said goodbye to Todd’s AWESOME grad school friend Alfredo and his family, in early May 2017, it was time to head towards some major attractions, Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama and Bolivia’s Lagunas Route. These are both very high altitude locations so we began mentally preparing for the warm sunny days and cold cold nights. However, we also had to physically prepare for the altitude adjustment.  To do this, we chose to travel up to Agua Negra Paso.

On our way up to Agua Negra, we explored the lush valley. The Elqui Valley is known for excellent fruit and pisco (Chilean brandy) production.

We took the opportunity to visit Capel, a big Chilean distillery. The two major distilleries are owned by the same company, makes you wonder whether there is a big difference in the production style and flavors…

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After our pisco tasting, we decided to sleep off our sudden listlessness at a campsite that was just below the turnoff for our high altitude drive.  Altitude adjustment is a pretty important aspect of our travels. To physically prepare we decided to visit Agua Negra Pass, at 15,680 ft (4,780 meters), for the day. When your trying to acclimatize the rule of thumb is to only climb 1,000 feet (300 meters) per day once you are above 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). Going up in altitude and coming down for the day isn’t a problem, it is actually really good for altitude adjustment.  On this trip we pushed it and traveled from sea level all the way up.  We could both really feel the effects.  We had to breath really hard and our brains felt just a little squished causing headaches.  Any physical activity quickly put us quickly out of breath and even eating lunch was tough.  When you chew you breath less.  Luckily we didn’t spend much time up there and quickly retreated down to the thick air.

As for the rest of our journey, altitude adjustment hasn’t really been an issue for us, thanks to the fact that we move pretty slowly. But it’s a very important rule to keep in mind because the geography varies GREATLY around here. Very frequently, over the course of a days drive we can experience an altitude difference of 3,000 meters! Towns are usually in low elevation valleys, but you have to cross over the valley above the mountain pass in order to get to the next nearby town. Crazy!

WE MADE IT.  This is the highest elevation we reached on our entire trip up to this point.

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On our way down, we visited some smaller distilleries which had a better tasting product (in our opinion).

Did you need a gringo for advertising on your Facebook page, here we are!

Perhaps it was the pisco, perhaps it was the fact we hadn’t been on the road for a while, we decided to do a touristy attraction: star gazing with a professional astronomer.

This was one of the neatest things we’ve done on the trip. If you’re ever in this region, take advantage of the almost 365 days of sunshine and clear, cloudless night skies. It’s no wonder there are several multi-million dollar observatories concentrated in such a small area.  This experience was particularly worthwhile because the Southern Sky is packed with many more constellations than the Northern Sky, who knew we were missing out on this, living in the Northern Hemisphere?

We decided to go with the Pangue Observatory I can’t say I remember everything our French Astronomer guide, Eric Escalera, was rattling off, but one thing that really stuck with me was how far away everything in the night sky is. I never took the time to consider it. Call me ignorant, or unaware.  BUT, did you know that each star has it’s own solar system? Systems, potentially, just like ours, and possibly with life. We hear about the push to discover traces of life on Mars, but there are solar systems out there that may have life on a planet just like Earth.

View of the Milky Way over the Elqui Valley.
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Most people traveling in this area take tours of observatories, which are cool, but somewhat disappointing, because you don’t actually look through the telescope.  Our experience was more like a tour of the night sky given by a man exceedingly passionate about his profession.  This brain stretching was very overwhelming for me. SO much science! I loved it. But what really struck me about the experience was what we saw through the telescope. It’s something you have to see for yourself, really. The galaxies and LED-bright stars looked like a million spiderwebs connected by tiny bright white spots. It was magical. The stars were suspended in space, and could hold all sorts of life. I felt as though this art show was being specifically designed for me, something to make me appreciate how small we really are in space.

Trying to comprehend how interconnected these balls of mass were was difficult, but glimpsing at their intricate patterns and shining beauty was easy to appreciate. For the grand finale we were graced with Jupiter. We had to wait until we (the Earth) rotated enough to see Jupiter rise in the sky. It was tiny but you could make out the great red spot that is so essential to Jupiter’s look.

The great part of all of this is that we can see this every night, the trick is not forgetting that you are that lucky.

After stargazing we continued north along the grand coastal highway into Pan de Azucar (Sugar Bread). We were impressed by the thick fog and dramatic temperature drop, compared to Coquimbo.

Whatever you do, DON’T get stuck! We’ve only gotten stuck 5 times or so in the sand… It was a close call, but we didn’t get stuck this time.

Big pelicans, fishermen, and strange rock formations greeted us as we drove away from civilization. I was beside myself as I was acknowledging the fact that we were headed into Bolivia! The land of many unknowns.

Few Overlanders, or for that matter, tourists go to Bolivia because it is less developed than its surrounding South American countries. To me, this meant: TONS of pristine outdoor experiences!  Some things you can see as you’re heading towards the north-eastern border of Chile:

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Todd was also excited, but for an entirely more practical reason. He was looking forward to the coastal city of Antofogasta, the nearest city to Chile’s biggest mine. Big mines = Big Trucks = Big Mechanics. We realized we needed to change out our rear shocks because things were just getting a bit too bouncy after all our off-the-beaten-track routes in Chile and Argentina. After we visited with the mechanic and several parts shop I developed a new appreciation for mechanics, especially ones that put up with gringos who speak very bad Espanol! These guys are capable of fixing anything, it may take a long time, but they will help you figure it out.

The landscape began to change as we headed inland, sandy, dry, and very sunny high altitude terrain; a recipe for beautiful sunsets.

After Antofogasta we headed towards San Pedro de Atacama with fingers crossed. We had been stalking the Chilean mountain passes Twitter page. Due to freak a snow storm many high altitude passes were closed, including the one we wanted to take into the Lagunas Route in Bolivia.  So we were forced to hang out in San Pedro de Atacama…

More about San Pedro de Atacama and NW Argentina in our next post…

We traveled from Coquimbo to San Pedro de Atacama in early May through May 18th of 2017

3 Replies to “Stars, Desert, and Getting High (In Altitude)”

  1. Great post!! I’m heading to South America in a 2006 Itasca Navion 23J I just closed on. It’s on a 2005 3500 Sprinter chassis. A person I know who ones TrekAmerica has been down there 15 times. I bought his maps and travel log to help route my year long trip from the US to Ushuaia and back. Because of the roads, or lack thereof, he recommended I skip Bolivia. My Sprinter vehicle is 23′ long and will be loaded to it’s max GVWR of 10,200. Do you think I should try to do Bolivia? Maybe I could find select roads. I’m not sure.

    1. Hi John. Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. Great to hear that you closed on the Sprinter, great choice. I don’t know anything about trekamerica. We always highly recommend iOverlander. It is hands down the best resource for people doing this kind of trip, not only for mountain amount for information they have, but also because with people constantly updating it, it stays current. At this point, it’s become develop enough that you don’t even need a normal guide book for the tourist attractions. This App has changed overlanding forever.
      Do not skip Bolivia! It’s a great country and it would be shame to miss it. The roads have gotten a bad wrap in the past, but they have improved immensely. We entered expecting the worse, but by the end were very, very happy with the roads and can’t understand what people are talking about. Stick to the main highways and you’ll be fine. A route that I would suggest is to enter at Lago Titicaca, go to La Paz (but be careful, lots of small roads in the city, best to stay at the edge of town as much as possible), head down to Uyuni (with a possible detour to Sucre and Potosi, all good roads), and exit via the Ollague boarder into Chile, or exit to Argentina at at Villazon via Potosi. When we were there the direct route from Uyuni to Villazon was really bad, but they were doing construction to improve it. These options are all nicely paved except from Uyuni to Ollague, which is a very good gravel road. Quite frankly, we have found the roads in Peru to be much worse. Here even parts of the Pan-American Highway have been a horrendous pothole strewn mess. Keep me posted, I’d love to hear more as you’re trip develops.

  2. Great information Todd. Thanks so much for taking the time to reply. Happy New Year. PS: I read this when you first posted it, but just read it again and realized I hadn’t replied on the blog. See ya.

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